Local fire services practice earthquake response scenarios

By Camille Murray

The Urbana Fire Department recently began preparing responders to deal with the possibility of earthquake effects in the area.

On Oct. 13, the Urbana Fire Department conducted training drills for earthquake-related issues, such as trench and rope rescues. Capt. Dave Wisher of the Urbana Fire Department said the department’s technical rescue team has also been performing scenario-based team training to practice responding to the effects of earthquakes, such as how to deal with confined spaces, high angles and collapses. 

“The chances of an earthquake occurring in Champaign County are not very high,” said Timothy Larson, senior geophysicist at the Illinois State Geological Survey. “But the chance of us feeling the effects of an earthquake from other regions in the area is much higher.”

The county’s proximity to the New Madrid and Wabash Valley seismic zones, which stem into southern Illinois, increases the possibility of nearby earthquakes disturbing the area. The latest significant earthquake incident in the Midwest occurred on April 18, 2008, when a 5.4-magnitude earthquake, with an epicenter in southern Illinois, was felt in central Illinois and nearby states.

“The New Madrid earthquakes that we know of in our history have been the largest ones in the central United States, so people are concerned about a repeat of those earthquakes that happened in the New Madrid area,” Larson said.

Wisher said infrastructure could cause further problems if an earthquake were to occur because buildings in the area are not built to withstand earthquakes.  

Still, John Barker, chief of the training and development division at the Champaign Fire Department, said Champaign County is overall well-prepared for earthquakes and other crises.

Barker said both the Champaign Fire Department and Urbana Fire and Rescue Services are part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, a response system for emergency situations.

“Because we’re a part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, we can call on resources from all around the state,” Barker said. “They have teams positioned in Decatur, Danville, Charleston, Bloomington, Springfield — all over the place.”

Both Champaign and Urbana are part of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System division 28. Champaign is in charge of the hazardous material response team, which deals with problems concerning the handling of dangerous substances. Urbana manages the technical rescue team, which deals with problems such as building collapses and people being trapped in confined spaces.

“You’ve got the best of both worlds, per say, by having two teams in the local area,” Barker said. “So if an earthquake did happen, and we had a building collapse, or infrastructure failure that would cause a chemical spill or leak, we have teams here that can deal with it.”

Barker said that if an earthquake were to occur, the fire department’s primary concern would be life safety. They would also be faced with other issues, he said, including securing utilities, protecting people from broken electrical and gas lines and checking on the welfare of those in elderly and handicapped facilities.

Wisher added that he hopes to bring in other rescue teams from the region to participate in collaborative training next spring. His department is also working on setting up further team training in November.

Even though the chances of an earthquake are slim, Wisher stressed the importance of being prepared and remaining composed if a situation were to occur.

“Just try to remain calm,” he said. “Because we do have a lot of good resources and people will be coming.”

Camille can be reached at [email protected].